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Examining arrow and bolt heads from the siege of Crusader Castle Arsuf, 1265

Examining arrow and bolt heads from the siege of Crusader Castle Arsuf, 1265

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In 1265, the Crusader castle of Arsuf in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was attacked by an forces of the Mamluk Sultanate.  The castle –also known as Arsur as well as Apollonia, located in modern day Israel — had been granted to the Order of the Knights Hospitallers in 1263, who immediately moved to refortified the castle and surrounding town.

Though ruler of the Mamlukes, the Sultan Baybars, had only recently concluded a treaty with the Crusaders, he viewed the re-fortification and build up of forces at the castle as a breach of the treaty, and personally lead an army to lay siege to the town.  His month-long campaign, which included the digging of mines and counter-mines, the construction of assault ramps, bombarding of the castle with stones hurled by mangonels, and relentless harassment by arrow and crossbow fire, ended after 38 days.

The Hospitallers, after a desperate fight,  having lost 50% of their men (1000 soldiers and 90 knights),  surrendered.  They were forced to assist in the total razing of the castle and were taken into slavery.

This lays the background for the paper: An archeometallurgical study of 13th-century arrowheads and bolts from the Crusader castle of Arsuf / Arsur. In this extensive 23 page report, the authors examine arrowheads recovered from the ruins, plus detail the recorded history of the castle, the siege and the people who fought it.  My post summarizes their findings;  for those with an interest in the time period or forging methods, I highly recommend reading the entire paper.

Editor’s Comment:  As an interesting side note, in 2012 an archeologist student uncovered a treasure trove at the castle:  a horde of 108 gold coins (Hoard of Crusader Gold Found)

Crusader goldA team of researchers from Tel Aviv University has uncovered a hoard of real-life buried treasure at the Crusader castle of Arsur (also known as Apollonia), a stronghold located between the ancient ports of Jaffa and Caesarea, in use from 1241 to its destruction in 1265. The hoard, comprised of 108 gold coins, mostly dinars dated to the Fatimid Period (ca. 900 to 1100 AD), was discovered in a pot by a university student. The coins bear the names of sultans and blessings, and usually include a date and a mint name that indicates where a coin was struck.

Returning to our topic: touching on the research of other scholars, the paper’s authors present evidence to show the castle was indeed the site of a major battle:

Controlled archaeological excavations in the Crusader town of Arsur and especially in its ruined castle (below) have revealed clear evidence of a fierce fight, with the documentation of some 1250 arrowheads and 2750 ballista stones (Raphael and Tepper 2005). All are securely dated to late April 1265, which is the date of the site’s destruction by the Mamlukes.

Castle Arsuf


The types of arrowhead found were of designs commonly used in the 12-13th centuries, used by both Crusader and Muslim archers.  Of course, the arrowheads were badly corroded with their exposure to the elements.  In most cases the shafts had long disintegrated, as — noted in another paper, A short note on the crossbow bolt head from the siege of the castle of Kolno in Silesia, the shafts of arrows only survive for extended periods of time when preserved in waterlogged environments, such as a bog.

They are tanged, pyramid-shaped, rectangular or rhomboid in section, with an average length of 4.5 cm and a maximum width of about 1 cm (Figs 2 (c)–(f) and Fig. 3). Another type, of similar design but with a maximum width of about3 cm, is also attested in smaller numbers (Fig. 2 (b)). The arrow was made either of reed or wood.  In addition, a few leaf-shaped, kite-shaped and flat iron arrowheads were discovered in small numbers (Fig. 2 (f)).

Drawings and photographs of arrowheads


Of particular interest to the paper’s authors were three crossbow bolts.  One was complete, the others just fragments;  the complete bolt showed tie marks of rope around its body (some rope strands still extant, the remainder having bured into the bolt head).  It is presumed these heavy heads were launched by a siege engine, with the heads wrapped in flammable material, to set the wooden structure of the castle on fire.  The complete bolt head is shown below, along with the rope fragments.

Bolt head with rope fragments


In order to obtain an idea of the general type of forging process used to create these arrow-and-bolt heads, six arrowheads were selected at random from a group recovered at the castle gate.  This would make it extremely likely the arrowheads were of Mamluke manufacture.  Along with the three bolt heads recovered, these were examined by a series of high-technology tests, including:

  • Optical microscopy
  • Scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive spectroscopy (to determine the elements making up the metal)
  • X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy
  • Micro-hardness testing

Samples were taken from some of the arrowheads for destructive testing, while other arrowheads were polished for an examination of the microstructure.

Rather than present an item-by-item, highly technical listing of their results — available in their paper to anyone interested — a quick summation will suffice for our purposes.


Analysis of the arrowheads

While the forms of the arrowheads conformed to the styles known to be used at the time, the makeup, quality and manufacturing process fall into two distinct categories, even though all came from the Mamluke forces, suggesting they were the work of two different schools of blacksmithing.

All consisted or forged iron, not steel;  there was no evidence of an attempt at carbonization or tempering; the low carbon reading told the researchers that the arrowheads were made from raw iron, not reprocessed steel.  The hardness and carbon-rating of the arrowheads varied quite widely.

In examining the microstructures found in the heads, the authors determined the iron was worked at three stages:  refining the iron from its ore, forge welding and hot working by hammering, then a final cold-hammering which increased the external hardness slightly (strain hardening), creating an effective arrowhead.


Analysis of the bolts

On the analysis of the bolt heads and the organic rope fragments found with them, on how they survived and what they mean the authors say:

The present study agrees with the archaeological and historical evidence of the castle’s destruction in a fierce conflagration. The main evidence for such a high-temperature fire was the presence of magnetite grains, which preserved the original iron austenite grains resulting from exposure to high temperatures. The initial iron austenite grains were gradually oxidized into magnetite oxides, preserving the original microstructure of the metal. The nature of this phenomenon requires high-temperature, prolonged exposure and combustion conditions (Schwertmann and Cornell 2000). The high-temperature fire contributed to the preservation of the artefacts, due to the protective properties of the oxide layers.

The residue of ropes found on the external surfaces of the bolts supports the archaeological supposition that the Mamluk army fired the bolts at the gate of the Crusader castle, and that the bolts were intended to penetrate the metal sheets over the wooden doors, lodging in the doors and igniting them.

Finally, they go on to explain that the fragments of organic rope survived by “fossilizing”;  a process of osmosis where iron from the bolt heads slowly replaced the organic elements in the rope, preserving it.

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